University Health Service (UHS)
Health Promotion Office
Most sore throats are caused by a viral infection of the throat, tonsils, or nasal passages and are associated with a cold or the flu. A dry (nonproductive) cough and lighter colored mucus are usually present. Viral sore throats are less likely to be accompanied by a fever than a bacterial sore throat. Most viral sore throats can be treated with self-care and do not require the attention of a health care provider. Antibiotics are ineffective for treating viral infections.
Many sore throats are also caused by allergens or irritants. The other less common, but more serious, cause of sore throats are bacterial infections, such as strep bacteria. The throat appears very red with white or yellow patches or pus on the throat or tonsils and the tonsils and/or neck glands or lymph nodes are swollen. A fever higher than 101°F may be present. Sore throats caused by bacterial infections should be examined by a health care provider. They can be treated with antibiotics.
Symptoms of strep throat
- A sore throat that persists for 3-4 days.
- A fever of 101° or higher.
- Swollen glands in the neck.
- White or yellow patches on the tonsils or back of the throat.
Self care for a minor sore throat
- Drink at least 6 to 8 glasses (8 oz.) of fluid a day to replace fluids lost when you have a fever and to loosen mucus secretions in your throat for a more productive cough. Warm beverages, such as tea with lemon, may help soothe your throat.
- Gargle with warm salt water (1/4 tsp. in 1/2 cup warm water) every few hours. If you have postnasal drip, gargle frequently to prevent throat irritation.
- Eat and drink cold foods and liquids, i.e. popsicles and ice water.
- Suck on a piece of hard candy or a lozenge with menthol, benzocaine, or camphor.
- Avoid smoke, alcohol, and caffeine. Both alcohol and caffeine can increase your likelihood of becoming dehydrated.
- Use a cool-mist vaporizer or humidifier in the room where you spend the most time. Steam from a hot shower or a pan of water placed near a heater will also increase the humidity.
- Take acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or ibuprofen (Advil®) as directed for pain or fever. Be sure to read and follow the dosage instructions. Do not use aspirin.
- Elevate your head with extra pillows at night.
Signs that you should seek medical care
- A fever of 101° F or higher with no other cold symptoms.
- White or yellow patches on your tonsils, and/or a skin rash with your sore throat.
- Great difficulty swallowing or breathing.
- Hoarseness or enlarged lymph nodes that persist longer than 10 days.
- Chills, a high fever, and coughing up green or yellow mucus.
- A mild sore throat that has lasted more than 2 weeks.
- You have been exposed to strep recently.